Review: Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

Carve the Mark - Veronica Roth

Long review for a rather long read. I'm still struggling to figure what words are appropriate to describe the mediocrity and utter pointlessness of this book. My thoughts about it aren't as concise as this review will turn out being, because I only have so many words to fit in my review space and I want to illustrate why this book ended up being such a horrible experience. It's my worst read of 2017 thus far, though I considered giving it credit for at least the last quarter of the book holding my attention (Honestly though, slogging through 80% of this only to get to intriguing scenes of action/character stake investment? Not worth it, definitely not worth it) . I'm a fast reader, it wasn't the length of this book that deterred me - my library copy clocked in just around 460 some pages - but this book was such a tedious, offensive mess.

Before I address the most pervasively discussed problems in this narrative (i.e. how racist and and ablelist this book is on several levels. There isn't an argument to be made about that - it exists in this book even if the author herself doesn't realize that it does in this narrative, and I picked up on it in several instances in this narrative, probably more than I can direct quote in this review. I'll do my best to illustrate these points using quotes from the text where I can, though), I'll discuss the aspects of this book that are a little easier for me to address in quick notation.

As a bit of background, I had actually planned to read this book quite a while back. My experiences with Roth's books have been rocky to say the least. I thought "Divergent" was okay (though with issues), "Insurgent" was less okay (with more issues, but it held my attention still) and "Allegiant" was just...not good is putting it mildly. But I figured I'd give "Carve the Mark" a chance because it had all the bullet points of a series I might like. It's sci-fi, it's set in space, involves political intrigue and manipulation of powers/unique abilities of its cast, has some romantic inclinations, and involves a purportedly epic clash between different groups of people. (I'm deliberately ignoring the comparisons to Star Wars/X-Men because that sets up unrealistic expectations, and I don't buy into that kind of hype.)

I started hearing about issues with this narrative on the day of release, and several of my Goodreads friends and trusted bloggers had mixed reactions to it as well. I'm thinking "Oh crud, glad I didn't preorder it. I still want to read it; maybe I should just get it from the library if it doesn't have ten billion holds." On one of my routine trips to my library, I saw the book on the shelf and was wondering like "Can I actually check this out?" Turns out I could, and I did, and my initial thoughts were whether I was lucky to get one or if I'd set myself up for disappointment.

The long and short of "Carve the Mark's" story centers on the conflict between two space societies: the Thuvue and the Shotet. People in this world have unique abilities called currentgifts, which by definition in the glossary of the story "develop during puberty. They are not always benevolent." The story attempts to showcase the perspectives of Akos and Cyra from those nations respectively. Akos and his brother Eijeh, after a series of violent events, are kidnapped by the Shotet and made to use their currentgifts for the benefit of Cyra's family. Eijeh is subjected under the influence of Cyra's tyrannical brother Rhyzek, while Akos uses his abilities to aid Cyra. Cyra is a young woman whose existence is tormented by her currentgift, but yet she enacts her brother's will by serving as a weapon under his direct command. Cyra doesn't want to hurt anyone or serve as her brother's weapon in their kingdom, but her ability impedes her and can't escape the guilt of a secret (read: not so secret) that hangs over her head - both by her brother's influence and her own guilt.

Cyra and Akos have a rocky relationship with competing interests at first, but as they learn about each other's experiences, they grow closer romantically and end up making plans to take Rhyzek down. Of course this journey isn't without a few curveballs (supposedly, I honestly didn't find them that shocking) the narrative throws at the reader in the end, and apparently leaves to continue in this purported duology.

While this summary of the story wouldn't seem so terrible when taken by that barebones approach, there were so many things wrong with "Carve The Mark" in execution that it's difficult to know where to begin. The pacing in the novel is atrociously sluggish, starting with very little conflict or explanation and meandering more often than not (I found this to be a similar problem in Roth's "Alliegiant"). The worldbuilding is weakly drawn from the beginning, and the presentation of the world is awkward and confusing. For a book that blends sci-fi and fantasy in a space centered universe - there's never a chance to become immersed or invested in the environment. Granted, this is a universe where Oracles determine the fates of people with currentgifts and note how their gifts influence the balance of power between the societies. Akos and Cyra come from two powerful families and have powerful gifts that they develop over time, though there isn't much attention to the system by which this works (what little there is comes across as confusing). "Carve the Mark" trades between their perspectives, starting with Akos in third person, while Cyra's perspective is written in first person POV.

It was hard to care for any of the cast of characters in this book other than Cyra. Cyra had the more prominent storyline and scenetime, while Akos's perspective suffered from being too emotionally distant despite some purportedly harrowing experiences. Add to the fact that Roth chose to telegraph certain experiences and emotions of the characters - withholding certain revelations key to the storyline for no particular reason at all (and you could guess what those revelations were without getting too far into the storyline - I predicted them fairly quickly.) The narrative would've benefited from them being shown and fleshed out much more than the attention they received. So, the writing and establishment of the plot was much weaker than it would've otherwise been with greater care and time taken to develop the world. Don't even get me started on the one-note side characters and villains. For a reportedly violent sci-fi world with prominent clashes, when certain characters bit the bullet, I found it hard to care because I really didn't feel like I knew the characters in this novel that well. Even Ryzek's motivations felt paperthin despite the attempt to showcase his flaws and eventually the rationale he uses to manipulate his sister into being his weapon of choice to enact his assertion of power.

Cyra and Akos's characters had a few scenes where I could believe in their chemistry and slow burning relationship, but I felt my connection to them was shortchanged because of the way the narrative chose to not only push them together for convenient circumstance, but ultimately the narrative becoming another example in problematic YA tropes for I can heal your problems with the power of love!

These are just the mentions of structural and narrative issues with "Carve the Mark" without mentioning the problematic presentation of themes and depictions in the work. And it's perhaps the racist and ableist depictions that showcase not only how lazy the construction of this work really was, but how it attempted to incorporate such themes in a flawed and insensitive way.

It may be ironic of me to point out this video of Roth talking about the importance of portrayal of race in this narrative but I honestly think that despite the intention of *trying* to be inclusive of different races with her intentional incorporation of skin tones and hair textures - she completely misses the point of what it means to be inclusive.

When you are writing minority characters accurately, you are dealing with more than just an incorporation of skin tones. I think that point bears repeating: When you are writing minority characters accurately, you are dealing with more than just an incorporation of skin tones. Part of the problem with certain portrayals of minority groups in fiction, including in sci-fi and fantasy, is that there's a history of harmful stereotypes of minority groups in comparison to White/Caucasian or majority groups. This stereotyping is very evident in numerous areas of "Carve the Mark". I felt that Justina Ireland did a fine job of pointing out just a few of these problems alongside quoting some examples where this is noted in the text. But these are only just a few examples.

This book was ethnocentric from the very beginning against the Shotet group, and that never changed through the entire story.

Chapter 1: "The Shotet were a people, not a nation-planet, and they were known to be fierce, brutal. They stained lines into their arms for every life they had taken, and trained even their children in the art of war. And they lived on Thuvhe, the same planet as Akos and his family—though the Shotet didn’t call this planet “Thuvhe,” or themselves “Thuvhesits”—across a huge stretch of feathergrass. The same feathergrass that scratched at the windows of Akos’s family’s house."

“Sometimes it is easy to see why people become what they are,” his mom said softly. “Ryzek and Cyra, children of a tyrant. Their father, Lazmet, child of a woman who murdered her own brothers and sisters. The violence infects each generation.”
Chapter 2: Akos knew it without really knowing it: These men were Shotet. Enemies of Thuvhe, enemies of theirs. People like this were responsible for every candle lit in the memorial of the Shotet invasion; they had scarred Hessa’s buildings, busted its glass so it showed fractured images; they had culled the bravest, the strongest, the fiercest, and left their families to weeping. Akos’s grandmother and her bread knife among them, so said their dad.
“No woman,” one of the men said to one of the others. “Wonder where she is?”
“Oracle,” one of the others replied. “Not an easy one to catch.”
“I know you speak our language,” Aoseh said, sterner this time. “Stop jabbering away like you don’t understand me."
Because you would have your darker skinned enemies speak a broken form of your prevalent language.

Chapter 3: “Today,” she told me, “is the first day that most Shotet will lay eyes on you, not to mention the rest of the galaxy. The last thing we want is for them to fixate on your hair. By fixing it up, we make it invisible. Understand?”
I didn’t, but I didn’t press the issue. I was looking at my mother’s hair. It was dark, like mine, but a different texture—hers was so curly it trapped fingers, and mine was just straight enough to escape them.
My mouth dropped open at this inclusion because it's bad enough that people of color are often degraded by their natural hair types or forced to conform to some standard of beauty, and this serves to reinforce cultural self-hate of appearances in favor of the "majority" group's hair type. WTF man?

Chapter 15: “I’m not a fool, no matter what you people think of the Thuvhesit,” Akos snapped, his cheeks going ruddy as he picked up the practice blade. “You think I’m going to just let you set me up for a fall?” <- "You people" again. Dehumanizing language.

“So you, what? Leap straight to killing him? What is it with you Shotet?” Akos said in a low voice. Akos says this to a Shotet person who makes a bargain with him, involving killing someone. Casual prejudicial assumptions even from the LI. Ugh. This is an offshoot of the same conversation in the mention above.

There are a number of times when Cyra participates in her own self-hatred for identity, not just for what she's done and the secret she holds, but also her own ease of disposition for violence. This is contrasted against Akos, for when he subjects himself to a contract kill versus killing for survival, he's disgusted and nearly breaks down over the death. One could almost argue that in some ways Cyra corrupts him and he "fixes" her as his love interest, which I thought was pretty messed up in the context of the story.

As far as the ableism goes, this book portrays such in two dimensions: chronic pain and self-harm/attributions to self-cutting. This narrative portrays the Shotet in demonizing way with respect to the novel's namesake "Carve the Mark".

Chapter 15: Akos rubbed at the marks by his elbow, and thought of the savagery of them. Keep in mind this is a custom of the Shotet, and figures that he'd refer to it in some way as being "savage."

The most damning quote I found was one I partially quoted in my status updates.

Chapter 14: "Says the person who’s been scarring herself for things she was coerced into doing,” he said wryly.
It wasn’t funny, what either of us was saying. And then it was. I grinned, and after a moment, so did he. A new grin—not the one that told me he was proud of himself, or the one that he forced when he felt like he needed to be polite, but a thirsty, crazed kind of smile.
Basically the context of this is that Cyra was talking about how she marked herself not for the number of kills she made with her ability but for every time she had pain. I think this is triggering for people who may have recovered from some degree of self-harm/cutting. And the fact that Akos and Cyra laugh about it made me want to throw the book down in disgust, even if it is bitter/dark humor. It's not funny.

And definitely not cool to romanticize chronic pain in the form of an attempted sacrifice:

Chapter 25: Akos’s eyes—full of tears, full of pain—found mine. Pushing the shadow toward him would have been easy. I had done it many times before, each time a mark on my left arm. All I had to do was let the connection form, let the pain pass between us like a breath, like a kiss. Let all of it flow out of me, bringing relief for us both, in death.
But he did not deserve it.
This time, I broke the connection, like slamming a door between us. I pulled the pain back, into myself, willing my body to grow darker and darker, like a bottle of pink. I shuddered with the force of that power, that agony.
I didn’t scream. I wasn’t afraid. I knew I was strong enough to survive it all.

I feel like there were more problems in this book than I could care to cite as far as the portrayals were concerned. I understood that this was supposed to be a narrative showcasing two very flawed characters put in extraordinary circumstances and brought together under those terms, but taking and appropriating from established cultures and loosely building a narrative with many haphazard stereotypes, some even affirming awful and harmful attributions, is really messed up. Romanticizing pain, including measures out of the control of the person suffering from it, isn't acceptable either.

I definitely won't be reading the next book in this series. And I'm unlikely even to pick up another narrative by Roth in the future.

Overall score: 1/5 stars.